By Patrick Marley, Jason Stein and Bill Glauber

With echoes of 2011's labor battle, Republican state senators approved so-called right-to-work legislation Wednesday, less than a week after they announced they were fast-tracking the measure.

A crowd of onlookers chanted "Shame! Shame!" as senators filed out of the chamber.

The bill would bar labor contracts that require workers to pay union fees. It passed 17-15, mostly along party lines, and now goes to the Assembly, where majority Republicans are expected to approve it next week. GOP Gov. Scott Walker has said he would sign it.

The labor legislation comes four years after Walker advanced Act 10, which all but ended collective bargaining for most public workers in Wisconsin. That move made Walker a national figure, prompted an attempt to recall him and helped propel him toward the front of the field of likely GOP candidates for president for 2016.

Wednesday's debate at times mirrored the raucous political discourse of 2011, though protests Tuesday and Wednesday brought far fewer people to the Capitol.

The session started in the early afternoon with Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) saying he was advancing the measure to provide "true workplace freedom." Almost immediately, ironworker Randy Bryce shouted him down from the balcony above.

"This is an attack on democracy," said Bryce, who made an unsuccessful run for the Senate last year.

Intermittent disruptions occurred throughout the debate, with individuals standing up to decry the legislation before being led away by law enforcement, as Bryce was.

Senate President Mary Lazich (R-New Berlin) early on threatened to boot all members of the public from observing the proceedings, but did not do so.

"We have two strikes here," Lazich said 10 minutes into the session, after a second person was ejected. "If there's another interruption, I will be very tempted to clear the gallery."

Sen. Jerry Petrowski (R-Marathon), a former member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, joined all Democrats in voting against the bill after eight hours of debate.

"I'm a Ronald Reagan Republican, and like President Reagan I was a union member for many years," Petrowski said in a statement. "Under the law as it stands, unions are formed by a majority vote and everyone gets to choose where they work."

Twenty-four states have right-to-work laws. Fitzgerald said workers shouldn't be forced to pay money to groups if they don't support them, and that the change could spark Wisconsin's sluggish economy.

"We cannot remain stuck in an antiquated system," he said. "I believe we have a duty to the taxpayers to explore any opportunity to make Wisconsin more competitive."

Democrats countered that businesses and unions should be able to reach labor contracts as they see fit. They said it makes sense to require workers to pay fees to cover union costs because unions are required under federal law to represent all employees of a work unit, even if they chose not to join the union.

"This bill is going to drive down family wages," said Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling (D-La Crosse).

Democrats highlighted the opposition of contracting firms and a broad spectrum of labor unions, including those representing professional football and baseball players. Republicans said they wanted to give workers the say in whether to pay union fees and cited support for the legislation from Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, the state's largest business lobbying group.

The move comes at a time when Walker has climbed into the top tier of likely GOP presidential candidates. This week he and other likely candidates are to appear at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, D.C., and before the Club for Growth in Palm Beach, Fla.

Walker pledged in 2012 to do "everything in my power" to keep right-to-work legislation from getting to his desk, and in his re-election campaign last year he repeatedly downplayed the issue.

But last week Walker announced he would sign the legislation, noting he sponsored such a bill two decades ago when he was a member of the Assembly. On Tuesday, he said his 2012 promise to block the legislation was good only for his first term.

He made the 2012 promise after footage surfaced of his 2011 encounter with billionaire backer Diane Hendricks just before he introduced Act 10. She asked him when he was going to make Wisconsin a right-to-work state, and he said he would "use divide and conquer" and first address public-sector collective bargaining.

Wednesday's debate came a day after a chaotic committee vote on the measure. Sen. Steve Nass (R-Whitewater), chairman of the Senate Labor Committee, had planned to take testimony until 7 p.m., but at 6:30 p.m. abruptly cut off the public hearing and forced a vote on the measure after he learned union opponents planned to peacefully disrupt the meeting.

Walker is following a path set by Republican governors in two other Great Lakes states in recent years. Gov. Rick Snyder in Michigan and then-Gov. Mitch Daniels in Indiana initially took a hands-off approach to the issue but eventually signed right-to-work legislation after it was approved by their states' Republican-controlled legislatures.

Like Tuesday's rally, Wednesday's drew about 2,000 people who opposed the bill but conceded it was likely to pass.

"They already have their minds made up," said Richard Gilson, a retired member of the Laborers' International Union of North America Local 464 based in Madison.

Phil Gruber, general vice president of the Midwest territory for the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, told the crowd the legislation is part of a battle in Wisconsin that was punctuated by Act 10.

"No matter what happens, we will not give up," he said. "The dominoes have fallen and all of organized labor is under full-scale attack. And this will end up being one of the darkest chapters in all of organized labor history if Wisconsin becomes the 25th state to succumb to the right-to-work-for-less law."

(c)2015 the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel